Spem in allium

Some garlicky notes for this Holy Week.

First, at BBC an ancient recipe made new.

1,000-year-old onion and garlic eye remedy kills MRSA

A 1,000-year-old treatment for eye infections could hold the key to killing antibiotic-resistant superbugs, experts have said.
Scientists recreated a 9th Century Anglo-Saxon remedy using onion, garlic and part of a cow’s stomach.
They were “astonished” to find it almost completely wiped out methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as MRSA.
Their findings will be presented at a national microbiology conference.
The remedy was found in Bald’s Leechbook – an old English manuscript containing instructions on various treatments held in the British Library.
Anglo-Saxon expert Dr Christina Lee, from the University of Nottingham, translated the recipe for an “eye salve”, which includes garlic, onion or leeks, wine and cow bile.
Experts from the university’s microbiology team recreated the remedy and then tested it on large cultures of MRSA.

Oh those medieval types were soooo stupid.

And now from the great blog Pass The Garum an even more ancient recipe made new.

Moretum – Cheese, Herb and Garlic Spread

Moretum is a cheese, garlic, and herb spread mentioned in a wonderful little poem, also called Moretum, allegedly by Virgil. The poem tells us about the farmer Symilus and his morning meal. Waking up early, he lights his lamp and visits his grain stores. After spending some time milling the grain, Symilus has just enough flour to bake a loaf of bread. However, the farmer soon notices that he has no meat, and worries that the bread might not be tasty enough on its own, so he sets about making some moretum to go with it. Seeing as our bread could use a little lift, I’m going to follow this Roman farmer’s example and make some of this cheese spread. The whole poem, which really is worth a read, can be found by clicking here. It’s too long to post in full, so I’ve summarised the important bits here:

Symilus gathers four heads of garlic (!), celery, parsley, rue, and coriander seeds.
He grinds the garlic in his mortar and pestle, and adds salt and cheese.
He then adds the celery, rue, parsley, and coriander seeds.
The smell is so strong that it makes his eyes water!
Finally, he adds some olive oil and vinegar, finishes off the mixture, and slaps some on his freshly baked bread.

So, what to make of this? Well for one there is far too much garlic; Symilus might have been able to work alone in his field without his breath offending anyone, but most of us don’t have that luxury. I’ve toned it down a bit and used just half a clove. Secondly, Virgil mentions a bitter herb called ‘rue’ which I don’t have access to at the minute, so that’s been left out.


You’ll have to go over there to see the recipe. I have to try this stuff.  Maybe tomorrow.

I need some rue, and not from a bottle of grappa.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. mysticalrose says:

    I wonder if the garlic was roasted? In which case, 4 heads would not be that strong.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    mysticalrose and I think alike! – but the poem (in the linked translation) seems pretty detailed and does not obviously skip over the part where he sensibly roasts his garlic, first (which, however, need not to prevent modern recipe-reconstructors from varying it that way).

    How unusual were verse recipes?

  3. Supertradmum says:

    Where can one get bovine salts, part of this recipe? These things should be in everyone’s bug-out bags…

    mysticalrose, garlic in Europe is not the same as the wishy garlic sold in the States…comes from different sources. Most garlic in the States, because I am the sort of person to ask about such things, comes from China and has for years.

    One has to ask for California garlic, which is stronger, and “elephant garlic” is useless, imho, for cooking or anything.

    In Europe, a lot of the garlic is from Russia, Ukraine or locally, as in Malta, where the garlic grown there is tops!

  4. Mariana2 says:

    My kind of recipes! With just about the right amount of garlic, too.

  5. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    “Could hold the key” – so, this is ‘spem in allium in spe’ (which is perfectly compatible with

    Spem in alium nunquam habui
    Praeter in te, Deus Israel
    Qui irasceris et propitius eris
    et omnia peccata hominum
    in tribulatione dimittis
    Domine Deus
    Creator caeli et terrae
    respice humilitatem nostram ).

  6. oldconvert says:

    I should go easy on the rue, Father. It is eaten all over the world, but it’s very strong-tasting, bitter, and to some individuals is toxic. Unfortunately I pruned my little plant last autumn and Spring hasn’t really sprung around these parts yet, so the green shoots are only just appearing. Is one allowed to send herbs to the US? I’m happy to post you some, later in Summer.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    Rue is a dangerous plant which must be used by an expert. It was used to cause abortions in the old days. I have seen it in England as an ornamental plant used commonly.

    I planted four huge gardens in my life, but never used rue. One can get it in the States.


    And, of course, it is mentioned in Shakespeare, more than once, and here in Hamlet.

    “There’s fennel for you, and columbines:
    there’s rue for you; and here’s some for me:
    we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays:
    O you must wear your rue with a difference.

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Rue is one of those herbs where a little goes a long way, so my understanding is that normal culinary amounts are okay and perfectly safe. (Although probably pregnant people would feel happier skipping it, and it doesn’t sound like pregnant people would enjoy the taste at all.)

    Rue used in cooking, including Chinese dishes and Italian spaghetti sauce, taste described as piney and like tarragon

    Rue handling and skin allergies in the garden

  9. Charlie Cahill says:

    My grandmother,back on the farm,made use of a potato poultice to draw out invasive tissue problems. I can attest it worked. I am sorry I never asked her to write down the various ‘cures’ she had for colds,coughs etc…Mustard plasters were used to avert pneumonia.

  10. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Cow bile is available in commercial preparations both for people with no gall bladders (I guess as supplemental stomach acid), and for growing stomach bugs in bacteriological labs. The scientists used the medical variety, since they were testing for medical use. These are in powder form, hence “bovine salts.”

    It may still be available in powder form for industrial or cleaning products (my mom said her mom used to make cleaners out of ox gall), but you probably wouldn’t want to use that, as it would probably be too concentrated. I suppose one could test it.

    You can also get it for use in art products, but it’s usually in liquid form, mixed with grain alcohol and various chemicals, in those. So I wouldn’t use that, either, although it might work in a pinch.

  11. Augustine Thompson O.P. says:

    I was reading the title of the post and . . . said, Ah, “allium.” Of course works.

    However, in one of the most (in)famous inscriptions in my Western Dominican Province is what the carver of the pulpit of our church, St. Dominic’s in San Francisco, inscribed: “Contemplata allis tradere.”

    I leave it to you all to translate that, but remember it could also mean “Give to the big toes the fruits of contemplation.” I do admit that “allus” is a rare word in Latin.

  12. iamlucky13 says:

    Exposure to copper can also kill MRSA, and it is starting to get used on some hospital surfaces to prevent the spread of this and other pathogens.

    Unfortunately, since significant amounts in the human body are toxic, it can’t be used on someone who has an infection.

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